Home Subway Cell Service DC to enjoy full Metro cell coverage by 2012

DC to enjoy full Metro cell coverage by 2012

by Benjamin Kabak

Cell service in the New York City subway has become something of a afterthought around town. Every two years or so, the story pops up in the news, and the MTA claims cell service underground is “coming soon.”

In fact, 18 months ago, the MTA signed a contract to start rolling out cellular service to every underground station. The pilot program was originally supposed to be ready two years after that. I wonder if we’ll actually see cell service in six months or so. Anyone want to bet on it?

Meanwhile, down in DC, where the cavernous Metro is, at some places, hundreds of feet deeper than the New York City subways, cell service for Verizon customers has been a fact of life for DC riders since the WMATA and Verizon started developing a system back in 1993. This collaborative effort between the transit agency and a cell carrier led to a Verizon-built and -owned network, and the WMATA got a free underground radio system out of the deal.

Yesterday, Metro announced that the entire system would be covered by all major U.S. cell carriers and Wi-Fi service by 2012. New York will have to play catch-up soon. Dr. Gridlock of The Washington Post reports:

Twenty of the busiest underground stations will have expanded cell phone service by the end of this year, and the entire rail system will be equipped by 2012, Metro said in an announcement this afternoon…

Four companies — Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile — will build a new wireless infrastructure in the underground rail system during the next four years, the announcement said. The companies will design, build, operate, maintain and own one wireless network. They also will build a second wireless network, which Metro will own, operate and maintain for its operational and public safety communications…

The wireless contract will generate a minimum of nearly $25 million during the initial 15-year term and an additional $27 million during the five, two-year renewal terms, Metro said. Other FCC licensed and unlicensed carriers can gain access to the networks either through entering into agreements with Metro or the group of carriers, all of which will produce additional revenue for the transit agency.

Thus, the obvious question: If the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority can enter into such a favorable deal, why can’t the Metropolitan Transportation Authority?

I understand that New York City’s system is far more extensive and significantly older than D.C.’s Metro. It’s also much closer to the surface and, to my amateur eye, would seem to be far more conducive to underground cellular service than a system that features stations 160 feet below ground.

While the MTA struggles to find money to cover operating expenses, the transit agency has to keep an eye out to the future. It has to be able to maintain New York’s competitive edge in a cutthroat global economy. Inevitably, that means equipping the city with a state-of-the-art transportation system. If DC can do it, so could New York.

You may also like


Kai March 3, 2009 - 1:02 pm

When I was living in Vienna, Austria in 1999, they implemented this there, a very similar system to the DC metro.

Scott E March 3, 2009 - 1:20 pm

Part of the delay in New York is the bickering over whether stations and tunnels should be covered, or just stations. When the project went out to bid for a service provider to build out coverage in stations – and only stations, the major service providers collectively offered $40 over ten years. (Meanwhile, the winning bidder, a third party “neutral host”, bid offered $46.8 million over the same time period).

I’m not sure if the DC plan covers tunnels as well as stations, but I know (from my own professional contacts) that the carriers aren’t interested in wiring only stations – there’s little money to be made, and lots of calls to be dropped. Their $40 bid reflects this.

By the way, from a technical perspective, depth has nothing to do with it. Once you’re below ground, you need additional equipment and antennas to provide service. You need space to house it, power to run it, telephone lines to connect it, and also you need to install it – in a system that’s open 24/7. The DC system probably doesn’t face the same challenges as our century-old infrastructure.

rhywun March 3, 2009 - 4:11 pm

Will they be handing out earplugs to those of us who don’t want to listen other people’s endless chattering while we’re trying to read or just relax during our commute? I cannot think of another realistic project which would make the daily commute more unpleasant.

Cap'n Transit March 3, 2009 - 6:27 pm

Hear, hear, Rhywun! “Hello? Yeah, I’m on the train. Nah, I’m just bored and wanted to chat. So guess what Dave said to me last Thursday?”

We already have to deal with that crap on the #7 train (in over thirty languages!), and it’s a tremendous relief when the trains go underground.

ChickenUnderwear March 3, 2009 - 6:54 pm

I used to work near Union Sq and I live in Park Slope. There were many days I would choose the 4/5 to 2/3 and get off and Grand Army Plaza rather than the quicker Q to 7th Ave just to avoid the Manhattan Bridge and all the BLA, BLA, BLA I am on my way home BLA, BLA. BLAAAA.

I am sorry, more technology does not mean more civilization.

rhywun March 3, 2009 - 8:59 pm

Totally. I used to live in Astoria so I know alllll about that. Thing is, a one-sided conversation is even MORE annoying than a two-way conversation. (I read somewhere and I believe it that it’s easier to tune out a two-way conversation.) I guess if there’s one good thing to say about the R train that I depend on now, is that it’s entirely underground….

Ariel March 3, 2009 - 11:39 pm

Having the cellphone service in the subways would be a total boon for the city. Sure it would add more noise, but if we can sit and read through the train’s loud screeching noises, anouncements, passengers who talk amongst each other, and musical performers, we can surely handle people talking on cellphones.

What matters is that we are increasing our ability to communicate in this ever more interconnected and competetive global economy. We need to remain innovative and cutting edge.

JP March 4, 2009 - 7:27 am

Why? Are people leaving New York in droves because nobody can use their phones underground? Is this forcing people into using cars? Is New York’s economy suffering because we can’t yammer while in tunnels? No. How annoying is that guy who cycles through all his ringtones at top volume? What about that lady playing a game with the sound effects on? It’s not going to get better when the walkie-talkie phone crowd are enabled in rush hour. Are they going to disrupt our working-while-commuting via blackberry?

*beep!* where you at?
*beep!* I’m on the train!
*beep!* which train?
*beep!* the T train! it’s really crowded in here!
*beep!* what did you say?
*beep!* hang on, the girl next to me has her iPod turned up really loud!

Two months ago a man got on the Q with a small amplifier and a trumpet- he turned on some music and started playing along for money. I walked straight up to him and put my palms together and literally begged him to stop because it was too loud in a confined space, and now that our safety has been prioritized, we cannot move between the cars on many trains. Thankfully many of my fellow straphangers came to my aid and politely told him to stow it in this instance.

News about last year’s crash in California is still breaking. The engineer used his phone on the job. The engineer was texting on the job. The engineer was planning to put a teenager at the helm of a locomotive and talk him through driving a train. To this I can say that there will always be people who disregard the rules and are a danger to themselves and others- but why enable more?

Being able to use your phone on the platform is one thing. There are exits on the platform, and usually, space to move around. The train cars are enclosed, public spaces and we should keep the noise down. Next time you’re on a Greyhound with three screaming babies, or in an elevator with ‘that guy’- think about rush hour with everyone (and their grandmother) making calls they really don’t need to make. Sure you’d like to make calls. But honestly, we don’t want to hear it.

rhywun March 4, 2009 - 11:15 am

Yes, I can sit through all of those things (although sometimes I need a little help from earphones–with or without music), and the reason is that none of these things is nearly as annoying as multiple one-sided conversations going on around you. I think it’s a psychological effect: your brain instantly zooms in on such a conversation and struggles to fill in the missing side of it. Also, people jabbering to themselves has never been a normal part of daily life until very recently. I honestly can’t stand hearing people’s conversations *everywhere* I go. I don’t like it on the street, but at least it’s usually only temporary. I’m sure not going to like it in a cramped, confined space.

Scott E March 4, 2009 - 8:36 am

The healthy debate is exactly why nothing has been done – there is no clear-cut answer on whether it’s appropriate to wire the subways or not.

There are a few things to keep in mind though: (1) tunnels are generally noisier than elevated tracks due to the echo in the cavern. Maybe people won’t try phone calls, maybe they’ll shout. (2) A lot of the cell-phone usage would be data – businessmen checking emails and stock prices as well as kids using text-messages or web-surfing. (3) a real pet-peeve of mine — the guy standing on the top step near the sidewalk finishing up a phone conversation as rider after rider nearly plows him down running for a train — can be avoided. (4) safety factor: if we See Something, we really can Say Something (that said, the feasibility of a phone-detonated bomb also gets easier). And perhaps the most important impact is (5) ADDED REVENUE FOR THE MTA.

The DC Metro should be viewed as a test-case for this scenario, especially if tunnels are covered. What is the overall reaction by passengers? by police? by the Transit Authority?

Just some things to think about.

Jason March 4, 2009 - 9:46 am

The only way i would support this idea is if the carriers could enact a firewall of sorts that only allowed data service, not voice service. Lets face it, we don’t need any more obnoxious,inconsiderate behavoir on the trains, yet giving people another privilige that will immediately be abused is just asking for nevr ending headaches.

So again, yay for data, nay for voice. im sure it cant be too hard to pull off with current technology

John March 4, 2009 - 10:03 am

Jason, that sounds like wi-fi, which would be fine by me. Not all phones can use wi-fi, but more and more can these days. Plus with wi-fi people could use laptops too, not that I would want to try to use my laptop on the train.

JP March 4, 2009 - 12:59 pm

Allowing wi-fi but not voice would just be a temporary setback. That would be like the caller-ID blocker-blocker. Once there’s a gizmo that prevents a service, it’s only a little while until someone invents a workaround. Skype on your iPhone? Again, this probably won’t affect the worst offenders- the walkie-talkie crew.

rhywun March 4, 2009 - 5:43 pm

Oh dear god. “BEEP-BEEP! Yo, wassup?” “BEEP-BEEP! Nothin’ much.” I’d like to think that even New Yorkers with their insatiable craving for pointless conversation would not tolerate those things.

Mitch45 March 5, 2009 - 8:48 am

NO NO NO cell phones in the subways. PLEASE!!

I have to hear every yenta, housefrau and gum-cracking teen yacking on the LIRR every day about absolute nonsense, like which schools their precious kids got into, what colors their new kitchens are going to be, which guy didn’t call them back last night, et al. Like some other people above, I breathe a sigh of relief when the train enters a tunnel and these yakkers get cut off. PLEASE no cell phones in the subway!

SignalWatcher March 5, 2009 - 11:20 am

Don’t you hate when someone (ahem, Mitch45, above) starts a conversation somewhere else about what you have written, but then doesn’t have the courtesy include a link? They never learn…


I HOPE they wire the NYC subway for cell service. Mitch45 would have a conniption 🙂

Mitch45 March 5, 2009 - 1:48 pm

I did give him credit. I specifically said that there was a topic on the Second Avenue Sagas blog about this topic. Can’t you read? I didn’t provide a link because the good people at SubChat are quite able to find this site by themselves.

And I wanted to get the opinions of people other than those on this site.

SignalWatcher March 5, 2009 - 6:24 pm

Can you read? I said LINK, not CREDIT. There are many good reasons why links should be provided. You failed to do so because you are lazy. In the future, when mentioning someone else’s work, provide a link.

Alon Levy March 5, 2009 - 10:02 pm

No wonder everyone on Riders’ Diaries thinks Subchat is for abusive idiots.

Mitch45 March 5, 2009 - 1:50 pm

Yeah, and I hope you’re a passenger on the train where the motorman is too busy texting or gabbing on his phone to pay attention to what he is doing. Who knows, he might blow a red or do something else to trip the brakes, or worse.

SignalWatcher March 5, 2009 - 6:26 pm

No, by the time the tunnels are wired, CBTC and ATO will be in effect on all lines 🙂 And you’ll be rocking back and forth on the floor of the car having a conniption anyhow 🙂

Mitch45 March 6, 2009 - 7:49 am

Heh. The full-length SAS will be up and running by the time CBTC and ATO will be in effect on all lines. Meaning – NEVER.

tewkewl March 26, 2009 - 2:05 pm

US Cities are a disgrace in this regard. I have been all over the world, and mega cities like Tokyo and Seoul not only have far more extensive subway systems than new york, they have lighting fast 3G speeds in all parts of the subway system.

I remember calling folks as I was waiting for a train. Not only that, but the systems are 100% nicer than anything we have in this country.

There are glass double doors and walls that separate the passenger from the train at some stops so that you don’t get that rush of air and don’t have to worry about falling on to the tracks (if you have kids, you know what i’m talking about).

The subways are remarkably clean inside and out. We need to pay more attention to these systems in this country.

But NYC is the best we have in this country, when all’s said and done.

San Francisco has two separate train systems (muni and bart) and they don’t even interesect so that you can transfer! It pissed me off when i lived there.


Leave a Comment